These days the big powers, along with their embedded corporate media, like to undermine independent states by branding them as either 'dictatorships' or 'populist' regimes. The first label suggests generalised repression, though of greatest concern is the repression of corporate privilege; the second suggests some form of deceptive demagoguery.
Venezuela's late President Hugo Chávez, in life and death, was branded both a 'dictator' and a 'populist'. In fact, he was neither. What he did, as Luis Bilbao and William Robinson note, was lead Latin America's break with neoliberalism and 'put socialism back on the public agenda'.
The impact of this is still being felt
Chávez was also the main driver behind south-focussed regional integration in the Americas, initiating both the eight-nation ALBA group and the 34 member CELAC, a clear counter-weight to the Washington-controlled Organization of American States (OAS). He therefore leaves a powerful regional legacy.
In Venezuela Chávez won successive election victories, gaining between 55% and 63% of the vote, in an electoral system described by former US President Jimmy Carter as 'a model for other democracies'. You might not appreciate this, from the corporate media. In one of the many half-truths and outright lies peddled daily about Chávez, Alejandro Chafuen in Forbes magazine claims Chávez was 'one of the most unpopular' Latin American leaders. He cites polls by Latinobarometro in other parts of Latin America, where the man was demonised by the corporate media. However within his own country (which is what matters in any democracy) Chávez had great popularity. Indeed Latinobarometro shows that Venezuelans rated satisfaction with their own democracy very highly (7 out of 10, in 2010), an achievement reinforced by the near doubling in participation rates at Presidential elections, to more than 80% in 2012.
Populism means over-blown rhetoric, hand-outs and empty promises; but Chávez, with the style of a populist, went well beyond this. In the best traditions of social democracy he fomented broad participation, widening rights through a new constitution, mass education and health services and giving ordinary people a real say in their own communities. The central government used oil money to directly fund a wide range of social programs, cooperatives, local communal councils and communities.
Former Chávez adviser Marta Harnecker pointed out that Chávez, as a charismatic leader, communicated with the style of a populist, but he helped people organise: 'that is not populism; it is revolutionary leadership'.
An important test of the resilience of the Chávez legacy will come on 14 April, when his successor Nicolás Maduro stands against right wing candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski. Maduro is a former transport union leader who worked with Chávez for two decades. Capriles became famous for his personal involvement in an attack on the Cuban Embassy during the 2002 US-backed coup. He was soundly defeated by Chávez in elections last October and few expect him to win in 2013. Polls put Maduro well in front. Majority support appears firm for the socialist transition program initiated by Chávez back in 2005.
None of this is good news for the international investor groups who still control most media channels, in Venezuela as elsewhere. Indeed, the anti-Chávez rhetoric has hardly abated with the man's death. Both Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper and US President Barack Obama claimed the death of President Chávez 'brings hope' to Venezuela.
Business magazine headlines read: 'Why Chávez was bad for Venezuela', 'Hugo Chávez leaves Venezuela in an economic muddle' and 'Chávez leaves legacy of economic disarray'. All this suggests a burning desire to tarnish the man's image, in attempts to rein in the Chávez bandwagon.
Why was Chávez so influential and so popular? It had much to do with the powerful social programs, in education, health, housing, food, social security, local infrastructure and land reform. Poverty fell dramatically. In 1999, when Chávez first came to office, household income poverty was 42% and extreme poverty 18.9%; in 2011 these figures had fallen by 35% (to 27.4%) and 71% (to 7.3%) (INE 2011). Inequality also fell from 48 to 39 on the Gini scale, by far the greatest improvement in Latin America. A key Chávez slogan was: 'the only way to reduce poverty is to empower the poor'. Beyond income measures, Venezuela's Human Development Index rank rose strongly, from the expansion in health services and education.
Chávez recognised and returned land to indigenous communities and invested much of the country's oil wealth in people and communities that had been ignored and marginalised for decades, if not centuries. This helps explain the extraordinary reverence given to Chávez in the more humble parts of the country. For example, the January 23 community in Caracas, without waiting for Vatican approval, have opened their own shrine to 'Saint Hugo Chávez '. To them, he had performed real miracles.
It is perhaps not surprising that corporate media analyses tend to ignore or trivialise these achievements, and look for weak spots. The Economist (5/3/13), representing private financial groups, launched a broadside against Chávez on the day of his death. He had been 'as reckless with his health as with his country's economy and its democracy', said the finance magazine. Accusing him 'narcissistic' rule, the magazine did admit that a quick election would favour Maduro over what it called the 'moderate centrist', Capriles.
The Economist claimed Chávez had 'squandered' his country's oil wealth, but had been lucky with high oil prices, clever advice from Fidel Castro on social programs and an unpopular nemesis in the form of George W. Bush. However the Bolivarian Revolution was 'a corrupt, mismanaged affair' which failed to invest and relied on handouts.
Venezuela under Chávez, it continued, came 'towards the bottom of just about every league table for good governance or economic competitiveness'. It is hardly a coincidence that the relentless demonization of the man comes from those investment groups most affronted by his re-nationalisation of Venezuela's huge oil industry.
One important source to counter such assertions has been the Washington-based Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR). A recent article by Mark Weisbrot and Jake Johnston (CEPR, September 2012) observes that IMF forecasts 'repeatedly underestimated GDP growth' in Venezuela. Recovery from its two recessions (from the coup and oil conflict of 2002-2003, then the US financial crisis of 2008-09) had been much stronger than expected. Despite the dependence on oil income, there had been substantial investment across a range of sectors. Yet the Chávez 'bias' towards public and social sectors was not received well by predatory investor groups.
Precisely because of this corporate media onslaught, it can be difficult to read Venezuela. But, with a little patience, we can find independent sources and identify the distortions. For example, Roy Carroll of the British Guardian claimed 'a third of the country' revered Chávez, while 'millions detested him as a thug and a charlatan'. None of this explains the successive election victories, nor the fact that polls, two weeks after his death, showed that 79% of Venezuelans retained a positive image of their late president (USA Today 2013).
In another example, The Economist, seizing on a partial truth, claimed Venezuela had become 'even more dependent' on imported food, as 'State takeovers of farms cut agricultural output'. In fact, while Venezuela's spending on food imports rose from 2.0 to 2.2 of GDP, between 2000 and 2009, local food production also increased. The FAO (2012: Table 19) shows that the country's caloric self-sufficiency rose from 58% to 62% in that same period. More importantly, the FAO also shows that the proportion of under-nourished Venezuelans more than halved in just a few years under Chávez (FAO 2011, 2012). The country's nutritional problems have changed. By 2009 the rate of underweight children was down to 4% but that of overweight and obese adults was up to 30% (FAO 2012: Table 18). By way of comparison, the rate of food insecurity in the USA had worsened, from 10% of families in 2000 to 15% in 2011 (ERS 2012).
'Mismanaged' Venezuela was overcoming hunger while the much wealthier USA was going backwards.
The Economist also suggested that mass education in Venezuela had been a mistake, as the 'millions who enrolled in 'universities' that mainly impart propaganda [a reference to the promotion of Bolivarian values of solidarity and egalitarianism, as opposed to neoliberal individualism and commodification] have raised expectations that are almost bound to be dashed'. Chávez , according to the finance magazine, had failed 'to provide the best education and health services money can buy'.
Nevertheless, the UNDP recognised the massive rise in Venezuela's educational enrolments, a major factor in its above-average performance in the Human Development Index (PNUD 2013).
Beyond the attacks over 'autocracy' and 'populism' have come some more specific criticisms over inflation, violent crime and an independent judiciary. Venezuela does have 20% inflation, but it has been controlled and is much lower than pre-Chávez levels. Nevertheless, further depreciation of the currency seems likely, to counter a growing black market.
Violent crime in Venezuela remains very high, but highest in the state of Miranda, where drug gangs persist and Opposition Presidential candidate Capriles has been Governor for some years. In part due to his shared responsibility for security and crime, Governor Capriles has often focussed on similar themes to those of the national government:
education, improved infrastructure and reformed policing. However he refuses to cooperate with the newly formed Bolivarian National Police.
Complaints about judicial independence (and the arrest of one judge for
criminality) must be read in the context of a new constitution which has privileged citizen's rights over unlimited property rights. There is a significant shift in values going within a legal system which used to be focussed almost exclusively on property, and a military which had been tutored by the US armed forces. Reorientation towards national and social goals, through Bolivarian values, has certainly caused some friction, and charges of 'politicisation'.
But to single out any one or two of such accusations as a basis for judging the Chávez legacy is to miss the bigger picture. We see the result of such distortions in a vicious obituary from the BBC, describing Chávez as 'an autocrat, ruthless and divisive'. This compares badly with the BBC's eulogies for the late Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin-Abdul-Aziz and the late US President Ronald Reagan – the former a non-elected despot, the latter an emperor who, through his interventions in Central America, unleashed what has been termed 'one of the most intensive campaigns of mass murder in recent history' (Nairn 2004). The list goes on.
However Chávez was a true champion of human rights, not a violator. As David Edwards of Media Lens points out, 'Chávez did not invade nations, overthrow governments, commit mass murder, mass torture or mass starvation through sanctions'. Nor did he build his reputation on empty promises. He earned the love of his people through real achievements.
That includes his leadership of the 1992 attempted coup. The government of Carlos Andres Perez, backed by Washington, had slaughtered more than 3,000 people in the 1989 Caracas street riots ('the Caracazo') after IMF-directed austerity measures. Remembering the curse of Bolivar on the soldier who raised arms against his own people, Chávez swore to dedicate his life to defence of those same marginalised people, mown down in 1989.
It is rare to see a political leader prepared to confront the great powers, making gains on behalf of ordinary people and re-building a social sphere in face of a savage capitalism which demands relentless commodification. To advocates of the neoliberal world, empowering the poor, making great advances in health, education, housing, social security and human solidarity - all these mean nothing, if they do not generate new sources of private accumulation. That is why Chávez – and not mass murderer George W. Bush – was a devil to them. Most ordinary people, and those with a social conscience, will think differently.